The Department of Energy is at serious risk of missing new court-enforced deadlines for emptying some of Hanford’s leak-prone underground tanks.
DOE notified the state of Washington Tuesday night that two newly set tank deadlines are in jeopardy.
A federal court judge extended deadlines in March after it became clear that DOE could not meet previous deadlines set in a 2010 court-enforced consent decree for the Hanford nuclear reservation.
Work has been slowed by safety precautions implemented around waste tanks to protect workers from breathing potentially toxic chemical vapors, according to DOE.
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“We’d hate to see any delays in the work to clean up nuclear waste at Hanford, but no one wants that work to progress at the cost of worker health or safety,” said Alex Smith, manager for Ecology’s Nuclear Waste Program.
The news of a possible delay is disappointing, she said. Emptying tanks is important work that will protect the health and safety of all Washington residents.
The state still believes that DOE could meet its deadlines while also protecting workers, she said. Ecology officials will be working with DOE to help make that happen.
The possible delay is not about worker safety, but an analysis of how much work can be accomplished by employees wearing supplied air respirators within the tank farms, said Kevin Smith, manager of the DOE Office of River Protection.
The cumbersome equipment reduces efficiency by an average of 50 percent, Smith said in a letter sent to the state Department of Ecology, a party to the consent decree.
Workers must carry 40 pounds of equipment, including a bottle of compressed air, and tire more quickly. Tasks are interrupted every 20 to 40 minutes to change out air bottles.
Congress’s failure to pass a budget for the fiscal year that started in October also is contributing to the risk of missing deadlines.
Hanford would have received additional money to address tank issues under the proposed budget for fiscal 2017, but now a budget may not be passed until spring, at least six months into the fiscal year.
The first deadline at risk covers emptying five single-shell tanks by the end of 2020, with work on two of the tanks already completed.
DOE must build on that to empty waste from nine of the tanks in the groupings call the A and AX tank farms by March 2024, under the second deadline DOE says is at risk. Infrastructure is being installed to empty those tanks, but waste retrieval has not started.
DOE estimates that the work covered by the December 2020 deadline might be completed by April 2021.
Washington state may petition the court to require DOE to start building more double-shell waste storage tanks if the 2020 tank deadline is missed, ruled U.S. Judge Rosanna Malouf Peterson.
The March 2024 deadline could slip by two years, according to DOE.
The waste is being moved from leak-prone single-shell tanks to sturdier double-shell tanks until it can be treated at the vitrification plant under construction for disposal. Hanford tanks hold 56 million gallons of radioactive and hazardous chemical waste left from past production of plutonium for nuclear weapons.
The slower pace of work in the tank farms also could affect a consent decree deadline to have the vitrification plant ready to start treating low activity waste by the end of 2023, according to DOE. Several tanks need to be upgraded to feed the waste to a proposed new facility that would prepare the waste for treatment.
DOE anticipates it could accelerate the schedule set for the work and is not declaring that deadline at risk.